Prioritizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Higher Education

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Article Summary

  • While many colleges prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion, belonging is the additional key to true success|At an institutional level, leaders should evaluate how their institutions can integrate and prioritize DEI&B across every function|At an individual level, faculty should ensure that their classes foster a DEI&B-focused learning environment
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Reading Time: 4 minutes

AJ Conway (they/them) is the head of Diversity, Belonging, and Professional Development initiatives in the College of Communication and Information at Kent State University.


Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging initiatives in higher education have evolved over time. This evolution began with just Diversity initiatives, which then became Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). Then it became Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Throughout higher education institutions, we see the result of this evolution with DEI strategies, priorities, and offices within student and academic affairs divisions. But, we now need something more. In small pockets of the higher education industry, we are now seeing the priority to shift to DEI&B – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

Understanding Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Diversity is recognizing and valuing our differences. Equity is creating fair, individualized support and resources. Inclusion is making sure that everyone has a seat at the table.

Unfortunately, inclusion is not enough. Having a seat at the table does not mean that you feel you truly belong there. How many of us have been at the table, but people ignore our input? Or perhaps our ideas are overlooked until someone else miraculously has the same thought moments later? How many times do we sit at the table, but we look around and feel that annoyingly familiar feeling of being the “other” or the “only”? We often wonder if we have our seat at the table to offer the token “diversity” perspective.

Why Belonging Is So Important

Belonging is the key to true success within organizations that want to prioritize DEI&B. Belonging needs DEI in order to cultivate and thrive, but without Belonging, DEI can be just lip service without any substance. I want people to feel like they can bring their full, authentic selves to the conversation, and be able to access support and resources that they truly need to be successful. They should receive an invitation to sit at the table, and truly feel like they belong there. Their voice should be heard, their ideas should matter, and they should feel that they are an important part of the organization’s community and culture.

So how do we do that? How do we prioritize DEI&B in a way that allows us to cultivate and foster that strong sense of belonging for the members of our college or university community? So often, strategic initiatives around DEI&B focus on one-off initiatives or programs around a diversity-related topic or holiday. The only way for DEI&B to be successful is if it is integrated holistically within all aspects of an organization. Creating an isolated DEI&B strategic plan, bringing in a diverse speaker, creating a scholarship for a specific population of students, and other short-term initiatives are not sustainable ways to prioritize DEI&B.

Holistic Integration of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Rather than pushing out a DEI&B strategic plan that places it on the periphery, consider focusing on holistic strategies that look at every level of the organization through a DEI&B lens. We already have strategic plans for budgeting, recruitment, retention, alumni engagement, and more. How do we look at budgeting from a DEI&B perspective? This involves asking ourselves a different set of questions than the ones we normally associate with budgets. Some examples:

  • Are we allocating funding to DEI&B priorities and initiatives?
  • Is the application and awarding of funding conducted in an equitable way across every department?
  • Who is at the table when funding decisions are made? What voices are missing?
  • Are we using budget allocations to ensure that all our people, especially those from traditionally minoritized and marginalized communities, belong?

That process can repeat with every aspect of our institution – recruitment, retention, alumni engagement, etc. How do we look at each process within higher education, each step of the student and employee lifecycles, and all other institutional priorities through DEI&B? The goal is not to insert limited DEI&B initiatives where they can fit around established systems so we can say that we checked the diversity box. Integrated, systemic changes that embed DEI&B into the fabric of an institution’s functions are the key to success.

Faculty as Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Champions

Faculty can be powerful champions of these systemic changes that will allow their institutions to truly prioritize DEI&B in a sustainable and impactful way. However, they can also have an important impact on their direct spheres of influence – their classrooms. How can you look at classroom instruction with the intent to prioritize DEI&B? It’s important to consider each component of DEI&B individually as we examine any aspect of an institution. But, this strategy is particularly helpful in the classroom.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in the Classroom

We can examine diversity in content, equity in design, inclusion in teaching, and belonging in practice.

A diversity of content and voices in your classroom materials provides a holistic view of your discipline. This also provides opportunities for students to deeply resonate with professionals and viewpoints that reflect their own identities and experiences.

Create fair access to the course content and utilize strategies that are often advocated for by universal classroom design professionals. This is a great way to ensure that each student has an equitable chance to engage in a successful learning environment.

Inclusive teaching strategies and classroom engagement techniques allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that work best for them. These strategies also provide them with the opportunity to build connections with their classmates.

Finally, belonging in practice emphasizes the importance of fostering a culture of belonging in the classroom. This involves challenging bias, addressing microaggressions, encouraging civil discourse, and other strategies to ensure that everyone is valued and respected.


To learn more about integrating DEI&B initiatives in your institution, watch our Empowered Educator event led by AJ: DEI&B in the Classroom: Higher Ed Faculty Training.

Watch Part 1 Here

Watch Part 2 Here